Twenty Ways to Die in New York

Every sidewalk cellar door is different.
Every sidewalk cellar door is different.
Nick Lucchesi/Village Voice

[Editors Note: This is one of the Village Voice's top 10 most-read longform stories of 2015. Don't forget to check out the rest of 2015's popular posts.]

New Yorkers aren’t any more morbid than people in any other city, but perhaps because of this town's sheer population density and history, it’s impossible to avoid stepping on the exact spot where somebody drew his or her last breath. (Maybe somebody even died in your apartment — maybe even in the room where you sleep each night.) And the recent case of a Wisconsin transplant who died after falling from a fire escape reminds us of another danger inherent to living in the city. Here are twenty situations many New Yorkers encounter regularly, even daily, that could be fatal.

You fall through a subway grate on the sidewalk:
In 2008, Eric Davis fell about twenty feet when a subway grate opened beneath his feet in Brooklyn near the Myrtle-Willoughby G train. As the Daily News reported via an interview with Davis, a woman on the sidewalk who saw him said, "Oh my God! Baby, are you all right? Talk to me," and another person called 911 while she kept him talking. In recounting the story, Davis said he was aware enough to avoid hitting his head and luckily did not break any bones. A WPIX story published in 2014 recounts several incidents of people falling after subway grates gave way, including this terrifying image: A group of 32 girls who all fell at the same time while posing for a class photo in front of their yeshiva. According to statistics from the MTA and Con Ed, one person falls through a grate every twenty months, making the odds of this happening to you slim. Oh, and never try to open the grate to grab your dropped phone: As this Post story shows (warning, the photo is disturbing), it can be dangerous. If it happens, borrow someone else's phone and call 311.

You fall through the sidewalk cellar door:
This has been called "every New Yorker's worst nightmare," and it might not be far off. Unlike subway grates — which are relatively sturdy by comparison — the trapdoor going down to the cellar of any street-level business can be springy in the middle, like a bear trap for humans. We all imagine getting a foot stuck between the doors, but when the whole thing collapses, as it did in January 2015, it can be fatal. As the Daily News reported then, a man walking in Bedford-Stuyvesant in the middle of the day fell twelve feet after the trap door in front of an abandoned auto repair shop opened beneath him. In 2009, a boy was injured after he fell through a sidewalk cellar door in Morningside Heights in front of a building, also abandoned.

You fall off a roof:
Whether you're backing up without looking, dancing, or sitting on the ledge, the heights we become used to in New York never become less dangerous. In August 2014, the tragic death of Cindy Yeh served as a warning to anybody who's moved a party to the roof. Yeh, 23, who was engaged to be married and an intern at MoMA, fell four stories from a Greenwich Village townhouse during a "boozy farewell party," in the words of the Post. In March 2015, commenters on EV Grieve lamented how unsafe one East Village rooftop had become — a broken alarm, an unlocked rooftop door, and a ledge the "perfect height for sitting and/or falling off of." That was after a man in his twenties fell six stories into the courtyard behind a building on East 5th Street. Then in April 2015, Bronx teenager Hakeem Kuta backed up from the NYPD without looking while on the roof of a six-story building and fell off. Kuta, who fell around 7:30 p.m., died the next morning. His crime? The NYPD were going after him and friends for reportedly smoking marijuana in the lobby of the building.

You're struck by an exploding manhole cover:
Sure, the odds of walking over a manhole at the exact moment it explodes are long, but the violent burst of a 110-pound cast-iron manhole cover rocketing out of the street, fueled by a fiery explosion, should give you pause. As we explained in February 2015: "The flying manhole covers often appear at this time of year, when heavy snowfall is followed by the spreading of salt on the roads. This salt-and-snow combo subsequently escapes underground into the electrical system, where some of the cables already sport nicks and tears from overhead traffic vibrations, natural wear and tear, and gnawing rats. The briny mixture seeps into those cuts and erodes the insulation on underground electrical wires, causing them to spark, smoke up, and, in extreme cases, explode." So there you have it. Watch out for flying manhole covers this winter.

You're hit by a bus:
Buses of all sorts squeeze through tight spaces, sometimes made tighter by construction that throttles all traffic, including the two-footed sort, into a single, narrow lane. All this activity puts pedestrians perilously close to buses that are between nine and eleven feet tall. As with all types of vehicle traffic in New York, not every driver follows the rules of the road. In February 2015, the Daily News reported that a teenager who had the walk signal in Williamsburg was hit by an MTA bus and subsequently pinned beneath its left front wheel. The driver was arrested and charged. The girl told her father, "Dad, I feel pieces of my ripped-up leg," reported CBS 2. In March 2015, a 67-year-old man was killed after a bus hit him at the Port Authority, and two days before that incident, a woman was run over in midtown by a crosstown bus as it was making a left turn. The driver, in shock, was sobbing, reported DNAinfo.

You're hit by a taxi:
The case of Sian Green thankfully wasn't a fatal one, but the British tourist who lost part of her leg after a cab hit her became a powerful symbol for pedestrian victims of taxis. Green, then 24, was hit near Rockefeller Center on August 20, 2013, when a driver — who had nine points on his license — lost control of his taxi, which jumped the curb and careened into her as she was eating ice cream with a friend. Improving pedestrian safety was an early initiative for Mayor Bill de Blasio through his Vision Zero plan, which points to numbers that show traffic deaths have fallen dramatically: 701 in 1990, to 381 in 2000, to an all-time low of 249 in 2011. The NYPD has also given some ridiculous advice to pedestrians, such as "avoid walking in the dark and during bad weather such as snow, ice, rain, or fog."

You're hit by a bicycle:
Anybody who's had a near-miss with a cyclist in New York can relate to the feelings of anger directed at two-wheeled maniacs who decide traffic laws don't apply to them. And there are more bikes than ever: The city's Department of Transportation laid out a plan in 2009 to double the number of people who commute by bike from 2007 to 2012, and hit that goal a year early. (The DOT wants to triple that 2007 number by 2017.) The latest "screenline" bicycle test counted more than 30,000 cyclists commuting in NYC on an average weekday. With more cyclists on the street, of course, the chances for crashes are greater: In 2013 there were 309 crashes between pedestrians and bicycles. Only one, in Brooklyn, was fatal. In August 2014, a jogger in Central Park was killed by a cyclist; a month later another jogger died after being hit by a cyclist near the park.

You're hit by a car on your bicycle:
The war between cars and bikes rages on — often over matters of etiquette, if not life or death. But when the two do collide, as they did 3,872 times in 2013, cyclists almost always lose. The Department of Transportation reports 12 cyclist fatalities and 3,884 injuries in 2013 from those 3,872 crashes. 

You're hit by a falling air conditioner:
We asked about this one four years ago, but given how heavy they are and how hastily they're installed on hot summer days by people who really shouldn't be using tools, the thought of a 65-pound metal box falling multiple stories is downright horrifying. Back then, a Department of Buildings representative told the Voice that "property owners of buildings seven stories and higher must submit façade reports to the Department every five years to ensure that the buildings' exteriors are properly maintained." Oh, and an air conditioner on the sixth floor fell and hit a 28-year-old woman in September 2014, who told NBC New York her leg "looked like hamburger meat." An awning broke most of its fall.

You're hit by falling ice:
"Watch out for falling ice," warn signs around tall buildings in Manhattan during winter months, and in February 2014, traffic on the West Side Highway was closed after ice chunks from 1 World Trade Center were falling at more than 100 miles per hour. Colder cities like Chicago and Belgrade, Serbia, have such horror stories woven into their culture, but it also happens here each winter.

You're hit by a piece of construction debris:
Tina Nguyen, 37, was struck and killed in March 2015 by a piece of plywood from a building that was being converted to condos in the West Village, a senseless death that came four months before she was to be married — the Daily News reported that she would be buried in her wedding dress. High winds — around 40 miles per hour — that day may have contributed to the plywood coming loose. The Post reported shortly after Nguyen's death that 59 people had been struck by falling debris since 2010. The building in Nguyen's particular incident had received nearly a dozen serious code violations over the course of the project.

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You're hit by falling scaffolding:
Pipe scaffolding and its sudden appearance and (just as quick) disappearance from our urban landscape gives us all pause. "Oh, the scaffolding's gone," we think as we return home to see that a beautiful building has reappeared. Conversely, we're faced with a cold realization when we see scaffolding crowd a once inviting sidewalk dining area. Because it goes up and comes down so often, it's terrifying to think of it toppling down because of a poor installation. Workers take the biggest risks when it comes to scaffolding, which is also put up at least every five years to facilitate inspection of a building's exterior, per New York City's Local Law 11.

You're hit by a falling tree branch or tree:
Imagine you're in the park, relaxing with a book, or taking a nap, or having a picnic, and you hear a heart-stopping cracking noise. A very heavy branch is falling from a tree dozens of feet above you. In 2010, a branch killed a baby at the Central Park Zoo, and in June 2013, a branch in Central Park landed on a Midwestern tourist who was hospitalized with serious head injuries. Later that summer, an entire tree fell on and killed a woman in a park in Queens. In June 2013, Google engineer Sasha Blair-Goldensohn was awarded an $11.5 million settlement from the city after a tree branch fell on him in 2009 and partially severed his spine and fractured his skull. An investigation by the Times in 2012 shared other awful stories and corresponding lawsuits and laid out several problems with the city's tree-care system.

You fall out of a window:
Windows are often positioned at the perfect height for sitting on their ledges. Obviously, do not do this! Pull up a chair and sit next to the window, or if there's no chair, maybe just stand. Just. Stand. The city offers all sorts of tips for preventing falls from windows, especially if you have children around. Some accidents come with the line of work: A window-washer in Tribeca fell five floors in March 2015 after washing a window without a harness. This heartbreaking quote from the Daily News recalls what an onlooker said to the man, who was still conscious after hitting the ground: "I told him, 'If you hear me, you need to move your head, because you know Jesus, he wants to give you one more chance,' and he moved his head," the onlooker said. "I prayed for him."

You fall off a boat:
The body of fashion designer Michele Savoia was found in the Hudson River off Chelsea Piers in February 2014 after he had gone missing. Reports state that Savoia was drunk and fell off his yacht. While the closest many of us get to the open water is a cruise around New York Harbor, that doesn't stop the idea of falling over the railing from immediately creeping into your mind.

You touch the third rail:
If you find yourself on the subway tracks because of a fall, know that the third rail is this one. That explosion was captured on video; the MTA worker survived. In 1998 a transit worker died after performing routine maintenance on the third rail in Brooklyn, and in 2002 a Long Island boy died after touching the third rail of the Long Island Rail Road. By the way, here's how the third rail works.

You fall down the stairs to the subway platform:
Inventive (strange) advertisements aside, subway stairs can be dangerous without any help. The mental image of falling face-first while bopping down a flight of stairs is a daily occurrence for some of us, not to mention the thought of being nudged in the back by somebody who's not paying attention. In February 2014, a woman in the Bronx won a $16 million lawsuit against the MTA after she fell down the stairs and suffered severe brain damage at the Graham L stop.

You fall onto the subway tracks:
Stories of survival after falling from the platform onto the subway tracks — read this one about a blind man and his dog — have built-in suspense and, thankfully, non-fatal endings. However, falling and perhaps mortally injuring oneself, any oncoming subway trains aside, is a nightmare scenario that should keep your feet off the yellow strip on the edge of the platform.

You fall onto the subway tracks and are struck by a train:
Signs hung recently in New York's subways share the latest statistics: In 2014, 145 people were struck by subway trains, 58 of them fatally. If you fall by accident, and for whatever reason cannot get back up to the platform, one conductor advises you to run as far down the platform away from the train as you can — everyone on the platform will be frantically waving their arms to get the conductor to stop the train.

You're involved in some sort of elevator disaster:
Many of us take elevators every day, and if you're in a building with an unreliable elevator, it's possible you've thought about it hurtling toward the ground. There are other, more gruesome visions, too. But the fact is that elevator accidents are incredibly rare these days. As technology has improved and regulations have been put into place, screaming headlines like this New York Times one from 1920 just aren't seen anymore: "ELEVATOR FALLS TEN STORIES; TWO DEAD, 16 INJURED."

[nlucchesi@villagevoice.com][@nicklucchesi]


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